Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Alan Moore's Providence and re-reading Lovecraft


Every now and then I find myself accidentally in lockstep with a general trend. Partly due to my tarot card work, and partly due to being relatively poor and relying on Project Gutenberg for much of my reading, I read Robert Chambers' The King in Yellow right before the television show True Detective spurred the Goodreads crowd to dig through it looking for clues. After that, I've been making my way through a complete Lovecraft anthology, getting a bit mired down in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.


Most writers use dreams to give the reader a ridiculously obvious allegory of whatever problem the character is dealing with. In the introduction to Tolkien's translation of the medieval poem Pearl, it's pointed out that without the commonality of first-person narrative that we have today, using the dream-as-vision to illustrate an explicit allegory was a convention of the time. Unfortunately, we still seem to be stuck with this old literary tool, which has become a terrible cliche.
"Tales of the past required their grave authorities, and tales of new things at least an eyewitness, the author. This was one of the reasons for the popularity of visions: they allowed marvels to be placed within the real world, linking them with a person, a place, a time, while providing them with an explanation in the phantasies of sleep, and a defence against critics in the notorious deception of dreams." (J.R.R. Tokien & E.V. Gordon)
Lovecraft was a man of science with a deep need for fantasy, searching for a way to reconcile these two parts of his personality. He also appears to have been a skilled dreamer, able to take back entire sections of geographical dreaming with him to the waking world. His dream stories aren't allegories for anything, but actual attempts to translate the feelings and experiences into the real world. To my teenage self, who was starting to realize that most people can't remember what they did while they were asleep, Lovecraft was the voice of a fellow traveler in the dark.

As an adult, however, I can see the joins in the structural form. As a descriptive piece about a series of dreams, it's a fine and unusual piece of literature. As a novella, it seems a bit of a failure that drags on from mood to mood. This may be a result of reading it nestled chronologically among the other stories, where he expresses similar levels of weirdness without the length. Even with that in mind, there's still no getting around the distasteful trend of Lovecraft to portray villainous races of swarthy or turbaned others.

This was also a problem with reading Robert Chambers, but to a lesser extent. The pseudo-scientific attribution of racial characteristics doesn't seem to have become a trope of popular writing by his time (H.G. Wells was still warning against the arbitrary, bible-based division of race in his History of the World). The "other" in Chambers seems to be more of a function of the development of nationalism, which was still a relatively recent idea. And one that would lead to World War I, as he would write about in The King in Yellow.

Which brings me to Providence, in which Alan Moore is strongly grounding this world as springing from the fictions of Chambers and Lovecraft (what, no Bierce?). We are shown the suicide booths and told about the predictions of war from The King in Yellow. And we spend some time with the characters from Lovecraft's "Cool Air." But we're presented these things through Moore's, and hopefully the reader's, modern, humanistic point of view. I was especially touched by the reclaiming of the "slatternly" landlady who speaks in a terrible Spanish accent as a loving companion of the cold Doctor Munoz.

I'm also excited to see Moore setting a theme of privacy and hiding as being central to American culture in some way. The desire to not talk about things and lock everything (and everyone) behind closed doors has often been a hindrance to social progress, and lately has become a weird obsession with the public media. It's also a common theme to Lovecraftian fiction. The indescribable horrors often seem to just be darker skinned people who speak other languages or women who enjoy having sex. As I've said before, as a modern reader, I often find myself on the side of the monsters. Moore may be implying that the Chambers-Lovecraft fictional world is the world of middle-class America, acting as if under constant siege by alien intelligences and locking its doors against the tentacles of foreign ideas.

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